Trump, the Saudi-Iranian Rivalry and the Geopolitics of Sectarianization

US President Donald Trump (R) looks at a defence sales chart with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office of the White House on March 20, 2018 in Washington, DC. / AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Nader Hashemi and I have an essay titled “Playing with Fire: Trump, the Saudi-Iranian Rivalry, and the Geopolitics of Sectarianization in the Middle East” in the Mediterranean Yearbook 2018published by the European Institute of the Mediterranean (IEMed). We examine the deterioration of sectarian relations in the Middle East in recent years, with a focus on the escalation of the Saudi-Iranian regional rivalry. We show how the Trump administration in particular has exacerbated these already volatile dynamics and suggest a shift in the policies of Western governments toward the region aimed at defusing the sectarianization process. Download the PDF.

Left-Wing Orientalism: The Curious Case of Patrick Cockburn

The following is an excerpt from an interview with me and my collaborator Nader Hashemi that will be published soon by the excellent online magazine Qantara.de. The interviewer is Emran Feroz, a journalist based in Germany, founder of the Drone Memorial, a virtual memorial for civilian drone strike victims, and author of a book on drone warfare. The interview revolves around our recent book Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East, in which we challenge the new conventional wisdom in Western media and policy circles that attributes the violence engulfing the Middle East today to “ancient hatreds”. We call this sectarian essentialism a new form of Orientalism. In this section of the interview we’re responding to a question about the pervasiveness of this sectarian narrative across the ideological spectrum.

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Versions of the sectarian narrative can be found on the right, in the center, and on the left. The New York Times columnist and establishment sage Thomas Friedman, for instance, claims that in Yemen today “the main issue is the 7th century struggle over who is the rightful heir to the Prophet Muhammad — Shiites or Sunnis”. Barack Obama asserted that the issues plaguing the Middle East today are “rooted in conflicts that date back millennia”. A more vulgar version of this view prevails among right-wing commentators. The former cable television host Bill O’Reilly has remarked that “the Sunni and Shia want to kill each other. They want to blow each other up. They want to torture each other. They have fun. … This is what Allah tells them to do, and that’s what they do”.

 

This is hardly surprising, given the anti-Muslim prejudice so pervasive on the right. What is surprising is to find people on the left trafficking in the sectarian narrative. Take the case of Patrick Cockburn, the influential Middle East reporter for The Independent. Cockburn has consistently framed the Syrian conflict in sectarian terms — using language like “sectarian blood-letting” and “demons” — and even criticized others for downplaying sectarianism. He did this from very early on, seeing sectarianism as immanent even during the nonviolent popular demonstrations of 2011, which were notably devoid of sectarian slogans and involved Syrians of multiple religious backgrounds/identities. The Syrian conflict became sectarian, but it didn’t start that way and, contra Cockburn, its sectarianization was by no means inevitable. In his chapter in our book, the anthropologist Paulo Gabriel Hilu Pinto demonstrates how the Assad regime pursued a deliberate strategy of sectarianizing the conflict through the use of sectarian pro-regime militias and the “selective distribution of violence” to punish specific sub-groups of protesters; and by releasing various jihadis from Syria’s prisons, to poison the well and produce a “preferred enemy”. Continue reading “Left-Wing Orientalism: The Curious Case of Patrick Cockburn”

Interview: sectarianization as a process

Sectarianization-book-coverNader Hashemi and I recently gave the following interview to Jadaliyya about our new co-edited book Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East, followed by an excerpt from our co-authored introduction to the volume.

Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel, eds. Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East (Oxford University Press and Hurst, 2017).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Danny Postel and Nader Hashemi (DP and NH): Over the last several years, a narrative has taken root in Western media and policy circles that attributes the turmoil and violence engulfing the Middle East to supposedly ancient sectarian hatreds. “Sectarianism” has become a catchall explanation for virtually all of the region’s problems. Thomas Friedman, for instance, claims that in Yemen today “the main issue is the seventh century struggle over who is the rightful heir to the Prophet Muhammad — Shiites or Sunnis.” Barack Obama has been one the biggest proponents of this thesis. On several occasions, he has invoked “ancient sectarian differences” to explain the turmoil in the region. In his final State of the Union address, he asserted that the issues plaguing the Middle East today are “rooted in conflicts that date back millennia.” A more vulgar version of this view prevails among right-wing commentators. But in one form or another, this new sectarian essentialism, which is lazy and convenient — and deeply Orientalist — has become the new conventional wisdom in the West.

Our book forcefully challenges this narrative and offers an alternative set of explanations for the rise in sectarian conflict in the Middle East in recent years. Continue reading “Interview: sectarianization as a process”

Sectarianization — events in the UK next week

Nader Hashemi and I will be in the UK May 8-11 for a series of launch events and panel discussions for our new book Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East.

Monday 8 May, 6:00 PM, LSE, Room 9.04, Tower 2, LSE — panel discussion with contributors Madawi Al-Rasheed (LSE Middle East Centre); Toby Matthiesen (University of Oxford); Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi (University of Manchester). MORE

Tuesday 9 May, 5:00 PM, Seminar Room 1, Oxford Department of International Development, 3 Mansfield Road, Oxford OX1 3TB. With Leïla Vignal (Fellow, Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford). Hosted by the Refugee Studies Centre. MORE

Wednesday 10 May, 1:00 PM, Chatham House, London. Panel discussion with Madawi Al-Rasheed (Middle East Centre, LSE), Chair: Nussaibah Younis, Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme, Chatham House. MORE

Thursday 11 May, 6:00 PM, Royal Holloway, University of London, Founders Main Lecture Theatre. Chair: Ibrahim Halawi, Senior Research Associate, Centre for Islamic and West Asian Studies (who recently reviewed the book). MORE

Sectarianization

My colleague Nader Hashemi and I have a new edited book out examining what we call the sectarianization of Middle East politics. It is published by Hurst in the UK (and worldwide) and by OUP in North America. This nifty video trailer for the book was produced by the talented Simeon Tennant.

‘Burning Country’ Extract: On Islamisation

Yassin T03090The excellent Books pages at the National have published an extract from our book “Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War” (now available in the US too). Before the extract comes an introduction to the book and the situation.

The revolution, counter-revolutions and wars in Syria are terribly misunderstood, particularly in the English-speaking West, by policy makers and publics alike. There are many shining exceptions, but in general poor media coverage, ideological blinkers and orientalist assumptions have produced a discourse which focuses on symptoms rather than causes, and which is usually unencumbered by grassroots Syrian voices or any information at all on Syrian political and cultural achievements under fire.

The consequent incomprehension is disastrous for two reasons – one negative, one positive.

First, the exponentially escalating crisis in Syria is a danger to everybody – Syrians and their neighbours first, but Europe immediately after. Russia’s terror-bombing is creating hundreds of thousands of new refugees. Meanwhile there’s good reason to believe President Putin is funding far-right anti-immigrant parties across Europe. It is very possible that this year’s flood of refugees will re-establish Europe’s internal borders, destroying the ‘Schengen’ free movement area, seen by some as Europe’s key political achievement since World War Two. With eleven million homeless, traumatised people on the eastern Mediterranean, terrorism is sure to increase. And the long-term geopolitical consequences of allowing, even facilitating, Russia, Iran and Assad to crush the last hopes of democracy and self-determination in Syria will create a still more dangerous world for our children. Yet European heads are being buried in the sand. Some still imagine a peace process is underfoot.

And the positive reason. Amidst the depravities of war, Syrians are organising themselves in brave and creative ways. The country now boasts over 400 local councils, most democratically elected, as well as tens of free newspapers, radio stations, women’s centres, and an explosion in artistic production. We shouldn’t just be feeling sorry for Syrians, but learning from them too. Their democratic experiments are currently under full-scale international military assault. They may be stamped out before most non-Syrians have even heard of them.

Continue reading “‘Burning Country’ Extract: On Islamisation”

Sectarianization: Steven Heydemann & Joshua Landis on the Trajectory of the Syrian Nightmare

Earlier this month I had the opportunity to interview two of the leading Syria experts in the world, Steven Heydemann and Joshua Landis, about the “big picture” of the Syrian conflict and the wider crisis engulfing the Middle East today, as part of the CMES Conversations series produced by the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver. Landis, while best known as a blogger and commentator on Syria, is an historian. Heydemann is a political scientist who has written an influential study of Syrian politics covering the years 1946-1970.

The two interviews offer contrasting perspectives, but both take us several steps back from the news cycle and place the events unfolding in the region today in a wider historical, comparative and global lens. This was the focus of the forum that brought them to Denver, “Sectarianization: ISIS, the Syrian Conflict & the Future of the Middle East”. Sectarianization will be a central focus of our  in the coming months, and is the theme of the book my colleague Nader Hashemi and I are currently co-editing (our last book being The Syria Dilemma).

Steven Heydemann is Vice President of Applied Research on Conflict at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP). He’s the author of Authoritarianism in Syria: Institutions and Social Conflict, 1946-1970, the editor of War, Institutions and Social Change in the Middle East and co-editor of Middle East Authoritarianisms: Governance, Contestation, and Regime Resilience in Syria and Iran.

Our interview revolves largely around Heydemann’s far-reaching report “Syria’s Uprising: sectarianism, regionalisation, and state order in the Levant”, published by the European think tank FRIDE. Have a look:

Joshua Landis is Associate Professor in the College of International Studies at the University of Oklahoma, where he is also Director of the Center for Middle East Studies. Widely regarded as one of the leading Syria experts in the world, he is the former President of the Syrian Studies Association. He writes and edits the widely-read blog Syria Comment.

Our interview revolves principally around two of his recent articles: “The Great Sorting Out: Ethnicity & the Future of the Levant” and “Why Syria is the Gordian knot of Obama’s anti-ISIL campaign”. Have a look: